Monday, March 19, 2018
Funny Support Stories
Through the course of my years in software, we had many encounters with technical support issues or bugs that were funny, either at the time, or looking back at them later. Here are a few of them.
In the early days of personal computers, it seemed that no matter how well you documented instructions for installation of your software, a significant number of very non-technical users needed you to hold their hands through installation. I remember at Synex, one of the support technicians almost falling out of her chair with laughter. When she finally finished the call, she told us what had happened.
She had helped the customer find the floppy drive on their PC, and told them to take the floppy out of it's paper sleeve, then slide it in with the logo on top and the open part in first. Then she told the customer, over the phone, close the door. This of course meant the floppy door.
The customer said "just a second" and she could hear his office door closing in the background. She almost died!
This is one of the old cliches of tech support, but I can assure you that it happened more than once. It was not uncommon for PC software to tell you to do something, then "press any key to continue". More than one customer called us in a panic as no key on their keyboard was labelled "Any".
Back in the day, telephones didn't have ring-tones, they actually rang. They rang by oscillating a magnetic field that made a little hammer wack two sides of a little semi-spherical metal bell on the underside of the telephone. On occasion, someone would place an office phone on top of a stack of 9-track tapes. The phone would ring, and the top tape would be very effectively erased. Depending on how effective the little magnet was, you might partially erase the next tape down, too.
Putting one of these phones on top of floppies had the same effect, as floppies, like tapes, were magnetic media.
On a similar vein, if a user had a bad time reading a floppy drive and it appeared to have been erased, it was often helpful to ask where the floppy was before getting to the computer. On occasion someone would stick it to a fridge with a fridge magnet ("I've never lost the fridge!"). This always worked as they were very thin and the magnet would hold it to the fridge quite nicely. Needless to say, the magnetic data was nicely erased in the process!
The old 5 1/4 inch floppies held limited data, were big and a bit fragile. So with the IBM PS/2 computer (not Play Station/2, Personal System/2), IBM came out with a new floppy, the 3 1/2 inch floppy. It held considerably more data than the 5 1/4 inch floppies, and a sturdier hard plastic case (it wasn't really "floppy" anymore) and was actually better technology.
We had a customer that we sent PK Harmony to on 5 1/4 inch floppy. When he couldn't fit it into his 3 1/2 inch drive, he tried folding it before calling us!
We sent him the right media and made a point of asking every customer what type of floppy drive they had before sending them media.
At Liberty, we had bi-weekly support meetings to review how our tech support was doing in terms of meeting our SLAs for customers. We had acronyms for most of our customers, and one of them was a company called Guaranteed Overnight Delivery. Their acronym was GOD. This made for very interesting support meeting agendas and minutes! It seems our technical support department was very helpful to the Almighty!
I mentioned this story in a previous blog post from a few years ago, but I'll repeat it here.
At Liberty, we had a customer who had a D3 PICK system, and they were doing research for a cure for AIDS. They did a lot of blood testing and had all the necessary equipment for doing it.
From the time that ODBC was first developed, Microsoft added a query tool called MSQuery to their Excel spreadsheet product. This query tool is still there, largely unmodified. It does its job quite nicely! Unfortunately, MSQuery developed a bug that caused problems on just some computers. I believe that bug is long resolved but at the time it drove us nuts!
This tool used the multi-threaded apartment model. Even though you could have it pulling data back on a thread that was distinct from the thread that was updating the UI, every time you wanted to notify the UI that some number of rows had been pulled back, so it could update the running counter, you would have to call into the UI thread. This meant that you put a blocking call onto the message pump for the UI. This was not a big deal usually, but MSQuery would run into a situation where the message pump would get stuck unless you provided some user input to it. This was not just a problem for us, but for any ODBC driver, it seemed.
This is how the bug manifested itself. When you were doing a query, the little ODBC "World" icon would spin. When this problem happened, the world would stop spinning and nothing would happen until you moved the mouse or pressed a key on the keyboard. Then it would start up again for a couple minutes before stalling once again. Those stalls would stop both the UI updates and the query from retrieving data.
Our customer had run into this, and had a brilliant solution. He took his mouse, put it in a specimen agitator, and left it shaking until the query finished. There was a constant stream of mouse movements that kept the query happening! That was absolutely brilliant, out-of-the-box thinking on the part of our customer!
And that's one of the best things about my work over the years, getting to work with so many brilliant, kind, funny, good people!